September 16, 2019

Zealots and Sages

The people are confused and aimless.

Lately they have been attracted to the neighboring Moabites.

The Israelite men have been seen consorting with them — some serious interdating.

Moses and Aaron don’t know what to do; they are old men, out of touch. They seem to enjoy sitting around, saying prayers, making Kiddush on Shabbat and holidays, communing with God — but no action.

Suddenly the community is astir: A young Israelite prince has been seen checking into a motel with a Midianite socialite. The old men do what they do best: They ask God for help, they offer prayers and incense, they call for a commission to study the matter.

Pinchas was your go-to guy for cutting through the red tape. He was not constrained by the inefficiencies of a cumbersome and feckless legal system.

While the old men were wringing their hands over the loose morals of the younger generation and their profligate ways, the young priest seized a spear, burst into the bedroom of the young sybarites and impaled them together. And then, of course, comes the plague. Morality is satisfied, but people die.

I don’t like Pinchas; most of the rabbis of the Talmud didn’t either. His actions, they averred, are not to be emulated or serve as legal precedent. He was intemperate and disrespectful (not like those nice daughters of Zelophehad; the Zelophehad girls also saw injustice in the legal system, but they brought their complaint to Moses and it all worked out peacefully. Why couldn’t he be more like them?)

Pinchas exemplified the apocryphal teaching of another battlefield star, Gen. George Patton: “A violent plan executed today is better than a perfect plan executed tomorrow.” Yet what can we do? God apparently approved of Pinchas and granted him a special place in the priesthood. It is noteworthy that he developed his career with a sort of specialty in zealotry. In the Book of Joshua, we learn that when the tribes on the West Bank suspected their brothers across the river of building an altar to a foreign god, they selected Pinchas to lead the delegation to investigate. I have no doubt that he took his spear with him.

But toward the end of our parsha, when Moses anoints his successor, it is Joshua who received the commission, not Pinchas. Perhaps Moses suspected that the meteoric success of the young priest was not a predictor of future performance.

There is a scribal tradition, maintained in every Torah scroll, that testifies to the problematic nature of Pinchas’ reward. “I give him my covenant of peace,” God tells Moses regarding the young priest. But the word for peace, shalom, is defective. The letter vav is inscribed hollow. It is a broken letter, a broken shalom, a peace that can’t endure.

There is more. An ancient tradition identifies Pinchas with the prophet Elijah (never mind that they lived centuries apart). They shared a common soul: Elijah also declared that he alone was an avatar of God’s word, the last of the zealots.

God didn’t think much of Elijah’s zealotry. As a result, Elijah/Pinchas is tasked with appearing at every seder and every brit milah. At the seder he witnesses children turning to their parents with honest, sometimes embarrassing questions about our traditions and the parents’ telling the story, patiently and repetitively, to the children. At the brit milah, Elijah/Pinchas must witness that every generation has its place in the Covenant with God. He must also witness a token drop of blood drawn to perpetuate the covenant, not a murderous act of violent bloodletting — a much better and holier use of sharp objects.

Is there a place for zeal? No doubt. The battlefield needs warriors, not poets. Institutions, including religious ones, often get bogged down in minutiae and forget the mission. It is refreshing when younger eyes and hands can bring new perspectives to old intractables and shake things up. Communities depend on such people; without them, we would drown in process and the weight of precedent. The trick is for the sage and zealot to work together, even — maybe especially — when it is the same person.

Moderation owes a debt to passion, which must be paid without undue deliberation. The Book of Psalms exclaims: “There is a time to act for God! They have violated your Torah!” On this difficult verse, the third-century rabbi Rava explained that it can go in two directions. Sometimes, when people claim “This is a time for acting for God!” the result is a violation of God’s Torah. Sometimes, though, when there is rampant violation of Torah, there is indeed a “time for acting for God” and following the example of the zealot. Yet, I am frightened of my inner Pinchas. Anger and indignation are hard to channel; once unleashed, plagues can follow with celerity.

Religious zealots, whether they are rabbis, preachers, or ayatollahs, will always command a following. They may inspire masses to march, but rarely to think. Next Pesach or bris, let’s welcome the zealot to our home and offer him a glass of wine to sip and a chair to sit down.

Rabbi Dan Shevitz is av bet din of the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din and serves Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice.